Chinese poetry: 1. Nature

Posted: 2014 年 04 月 02 日 in Chinese poetry
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The Art of Chinese Poetry: some Chinese concepts and ways of thinking and feeling

(James J. Y. Liu, 1962) Edited by Ben

No full understanding of a language is possible without some knowledge of its underlying concepts and ways of thinking and feeling, which can be revealed in the commonest expressions in the language. For instance, in Chinese, instead of saying “length,” “height,” “width,” etc. one says “long-short-ness,” “high-low-ness,” “wide-narrow-ness,” etc. which show a dualistic world-concept and a relativistic way of thinking. Furthermore, different concepts and ways of thinking and feeling, in their turn, cannot be fully understood without reference to social and cultural environments. This series of posts target a few typical themes or underlying frameworks of Chinese poetry that might be misunderstood by Western readers. As for ideas and feelings which are universal and easily understood, such as the sorrow of parting and the horror of war, they need not be discussed.

I. Nature

In Chinese poetry, as in the poetry in other languages, there abound innumerable pieces describing the beauties of Nature and expressing joy over them. Such straightforward poems need no comment. However, in the works of some Chinese poets, such as Tao Chien (陶潛, 372-427) and Wang Wei (王維, 701-761), Nature assumes a deeper significance, a significance quite different from that perceived by English “Nature poets,” notably Wordsworth.

In the first place, Nature to these Chinese poets is not a physical manifestation of its Creator, as it is to Wordsworth, but something that is what it is by virtue of itself. The Chinese term for “Nature” is tzu-jan (自然), and the Chinese mind seems content to accept Nature as a fact, without searching for a primum mobile. This concept of Nature somewhat resembles Thomas Hardy’s “Immanent Will,” but without its rather somber and gloomy associations.

From this it follows that Nature is neither benignant nor hostile to Man. Hence, Man is not conceived of as forever struggling against Nature but forming part of it. There are no Icaruses and Faustuses in Chinese poetry; instead, Man is advised to submerge his being in the infinite flux of things  and to allow his own life and death to become part of the eternal cycle of birth, growth, decline, death, and re-birth that goes on in Nature. This is clearly expressed by Tao Chien in a poem entitled “Form, Shadow, and Spirit,” (神釋) in which Form represents the popular Taoist wish for the elixir of life and physical immortality, Shadow expounds the Confucian ideal of achieving immortality through great deeds and permanent fame, while Spirit expresses the poet’s own view:

Let yourself drift on the stream of Change,

Without joy and without fear.

When the end is due, let it come;      

No need to worry any more then.      

縱浪大化中,不喜亦不懼。應盡便需盡,無復多憂慮。

Furthermore, in the works of such poets, Nature is not viewed from a personal angle at a particular time, but as it always is. The presence of the poet is withdrawn or unobtrusively submerged in the total picture. But these Nature poets are exceptional even among the Chinese, not all of whom are able to attain to this self-less state of contemplation. Instead, they sigh over the brevity of human life as contrasted with the abiding features of Nature. Indeed, it is this contrast between the mutability and transiency of human life on the one hand and the permanence and eternal renewal of the life of Nature on the other that gives much Chinese poetry a special poignancy and endows it with a tragic sense, whereas in Western poetry, such as in Greek tragedy and Romantic poetry, it is often the conflict between Man and Nature and the frustration of Man’s efforts to overcome the limitations that Nature has set him that gives rise to tragedy. This leads us to our next point for consideration: sense of time in Chinese poetry.

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